Driven: 2013 Mazda CX-5 Sport FWD

By Brandon Turkus

March 08, 2012

(photo credit: David Dewhurst)
 
—Monterey, California
 
There are certain classes of vehicles that are, well, boring. It’s hard to get excited about minivans and soccer-mom crossovers. When you are Mazda, though, excitement isn’t just a necessity, it’s a part of the brand’s DNA. This is, after all, the brand that revived the roadster segment with the MX-5, produced rotary-powered masterpieces like the RX-7 and RX-8, and builds what is probably the angriest hot hatch on the market, the Mazdaspeed3. It has applied its fun-to-drive character to more mundane entries as well, such as the Mazda5 people-hauler. The 5 was Winding Road’s Best Minivan of 2012, because it did all the things that people haulers should do, and was more than happy to be driven as if it were stolen. Now, Mazda is working to apply that same character to the small CUV market.
 
[Click here to read our comparison of the Mazda MX-5, Mazda RX-7, and Mazdaspeed3]
 
“Ah ha!” you may be saying, “Mazda already builds a small CUV, called the CX-7.” Well, yeah, there is the CX-7, but the Zoom-Zoom brand’s first attempt at a tallish five-passenger vehicle met with some mixed results. It was a polarizing vehicle, from the way it was styled to its Mazdaspeed3-derived 2.3-liter, turbocharged engine (and its propensity for scarfing down dino juice faster than anything else in the segment). Even when a more conservative 2.5-liter was applied, it still failed to really catch on, due to a combination of high-ish price, not-great fuel economy, and, in the 2.5-liter model, a lack of all-wheel drive.
 
With the 2013 CX-5, Mazda is starting with a blank slate. This clean-sheet design will be Mazda’s volume crossover, as the CX-7 and Ford Escape-based Tribute will be (or already have been in the Tribute’s case) phased out.
 
The CX-5 will be the brand’s first vehicle to fully utilize the Skyactiv engineering philosophy. If you aren’t familiar with Skyactiv, you can get up to speed here and here. Suffice it to say, Skyactiv manages to blend efficiency with the same fun-to-drive character that’s been a Mazda hallmark ever since some little kid uttered “Zoom-Zoom.”
 
One of the tenets of Skyactiv is lowering curb weight and reducing the model-bloat that’s become a trend in the industry. As such, the CX-5 is considerably lighter than the CX-7. In fact, the heaviest CX-5 available (the all-wheel-drive Grand Touring model) is 575 pounds less chubby than the equivalent CX-7, thanks to a lighter body structure, lighter transmissions, and lighter drivelines. All of this good work makes for avfive-passenger crossover, capable of an segment-best 35 miles per gallon, that has a driving character that reminds us of the fantastic MX-5 Miata roadster.
 
That the CX-5 is actually a bit smaller than the CX-7 helps here, too. The new CUV is around five-inches shorter, one-inch narrower, and, interestingly, a few inches taller than the outgoing CX-7. And yet, cabin space is pretty decent. Your author’s six-foot-one-inch frame had no problems getting into either the front or back seats. Once in the front, there’s enough adjustability to really get situated. Shoulder and headroom are quite good as well.
 
Despite its smaller stature, we were surprised to find that overall space in the CX-5 is better than the CX-7 by about two cubic feet. This is immediately noticeable in back, where the smaller Mazda has an extra three inches of legroom. The trunk doesn’t have quite as much usable space as we remember from our last CX-7 (the CX-5’s load area is taller but shorter), but we suspect that it’ll serve most people well. The CX-5 can also be had with a center-seat pass-through (making for 40/20/40 seating) for longer items, rather than the standard 60/40 split.
 
The CX-5 will be available in three trims, Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring in ascending order. The base Sport comes standard with seventeen-inch alloys (Mazda’s quite proud of the fact that the CX-5 won’t offer a steel-wheel option in the United States), push-button start, tilt/telescopic steering, and cruise control. Moving up to the volume Touring model adds a power driver’s seat, blind spot monitoring, a 5.8-inch touchscreen display, a backup camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and HD radio. The top-spec Grand Touring comes standard with nineteen-inch wheels, dual-zone air conditioning, Bose audio, heated seats, and a sunroof. Front-wheel drive will be standard, but all three trims will be available with all-wheel drive. A six-speed manual will be available on the front-wheel-drive Sport, while all other trims will feature a six-speed auto.
 
The CX-5’s design is based on the Minagi concept car, and is Mazda’s first production vehicle to utilize the Kodo design language. It’s a nice looking vehicle this, with pleasing proportions. The A-pillar appears further back, and gives the CX-5’s the long-hood-look of a roadster like the MX-5. The roofline cuts aggressively down into a pleasant fastback shape, and helps the car feel more compact than it actually is. Finally, the new five-point grille gives a real feeling of width, as it cuts into the headlights before leading to the lower center portion of the front grille.
 
The interior is modern and clean, with soft-touch materials on the dash and door panels. There’s a strip of piano black trim running across the dash, dividing the upper and lower portions, which as Mazda North American Design Director Derek Jenkins accurately stated, is there because, “People like shiny stuff.”
 
The driver-centric cockpit features a small, sporty steering wheel, with nice bolsters at the ten and two positions. The shifter falls naturally into the right hand, and the major controls of the center stack are logically laid out and within easy reach. Seats are cloth on the base model and leather on upmarket trims, and, despite what Mazda says, are designed more for comfort than aggressive driving. A bit more side bolstering to hold us in place would have been welcomed, especially when we were pushing it on roads of our drive route.
 
We tested both automatic and manual CX-5’s around the Monterey peninsula and Carmel Valley, before heading to the legendary Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for some autocross time and a few laps of the track (more on that in a bit). The road surface around Monterey was delightfully varied, with a combination of great twists and turns, decent straights through farm country, and road conditions that ranged from track-like to Detroit-like over the course of a 90-mile loop. While we did spend some time in the all-wheel-drive model, we’ll be saving that one for a proper test from our Detroit-based crew, and have focused our impressions here on the front-drive CX-5.
 
The difficult thing about reviewing the CX-5 is that it’s so unlike other crossovers in the way that it drives. It’s the least powerful vehicle in its class. With 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque, it’s overpowered by such mundane crossovers as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, both of which boast anywhere from 20 to 30 more horsepower and 10 to 20 more pound-feet of torque. It’s also not substantially lighter than the competition, weighing between 3208 and 3426 pounds, depending on the driveline. Based on stats alone, it shouldn’t be an endearing car for the enthusiast.
 
Except it totally is. What those numbers don’t tell you is that the 2.0-liter engine is a rev-happy little hooligan, gleefully zipping towards the redline. The meatiest part of the rev range is from 3000 to 5500 rpm, which is plenty accessible due to the quick-revving engine. Mid-range punch is excellent, and makes for an addicting passing experience. Runs up to redline are equally fun, as this engine delivers a smooth, bossy engine note. The only area where we found the CX-5 struggling was on a very steep grade, called Laureles Grade Road, near the track. It’s a roughly ten-percent incline, climbing around 1000 feet over the course of a few miles. The Mazda is spritely on level pavement, but its lack of torque relative to its curb weight really showed through on this stretch of pavement.
 
In the bends, the CX-5 is a total momentum car. It’s meant to stitch together turns by carrying as much speed as possible through them. It excels at this, as we found out on the roads of Carmel Valley. The suspension tuning has delivered a well-balanced vehicle. Squat, dive, and body roll are present and accounted for, coming on smooth and progressively, but never in such a degree as to compromise the handling confidence. On the turns, you can feel the CX-5 kind of dig in, and grip through the bend. On rougher patches of road, it is a bit choppy thanks to its stiff suspension, but considering its outright fun-to-drive handling profile, we’re willing to accept a bit of roughness. If you are more interested in comfort, we’d recommend avoiding the nineteen-inch wheels. The stock seventeens look plenty good, and felt considerably smoother over bumpy patches.
 
Mazda spent a lot of time tuning both the front suspension and the electric power steering system to get the most feedback from both. The result is probably the most communicative steering we’ve ever seen on small SUV, and easily the most talkative EPAS system we’ve ever tested. The quick, linear tiller features a 15.5:1 ratio, so it’s quick, without feeling overboosted or artificial. When pushing around turns, the steering feels attached directly to you, as it relays information on what the front tires were doing.
 
We ended the day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where we had the track and a temporary autocross course at our disposal. Running the legendary course was good fun, but our biggest issue was building up enough speed in the CX-5 to really string turns together. In a car as slow as this, a high-speed track like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca just isn’t a great indicator of performance. The slower, more technical autocross, on the other hand, was more its speed (as it were). The CX-5 felt light on its feet, and handled the twists and turns of the autocross with relative ease. It was here that we really got the full indication as to how communicative this car is. There’s a lot of feedback, even at the low speeds of the autocross, coming through the suspension and steering.
 
When some of the Mazda folk called this a five-door MX-5, we thought it was just typical PR talk, trying to build up their brand’s newest product by referencing the perennial favorite. After driving it on some great roads and on a tight and twisting autocross course, we think the comparison is actually pretty accurate. This is a light, fun-to-drive, affordable vehicle that relies more on handling than outright speed to entertain its passengers. At the same time, it’s economical, versatile, and comfortable. It feels like a winning combination to us.
 
VS: Honda CR-V
 
The CR-V is pretty much the polar opposite of the CX-5. The Honda has more power, but its 2.4-liter engine and five-speed automatic (the sole transmission option) seem to have any sense of fun programed out of it during assembly. Compared to the Mazda, it’s a slow, dull-sounding, and unresponsive powertrain. The CX-5, meanwhile, is right there, like a caffeinated puppy, ready to be revved and driven hard.
 
If your only concerns are economy and practicality, the Mazda’s a winner there as well. The least efficient Mazda (the all-wheel-drive GT) bests the most efficient Honda (the two-wheel-drive LX model), with 25 city and 31 highway for the CX-5, compared to 23 and 31 in the CR-V. Go with the lighter, fuel-sipping, front-wheel-drive/manual-trans Mazda, and you’ll be getting 26 city and 35 highway.
 
As for practicality, the Honda actually isn’t a bad choice, with its nifty Magic Seat Control (think Stow n’ Go) and an extra three cubic feet of cargo volume with the second row up, and an extra five cubes with row two down. Still, if you are wiling to sacrifice driving enjoyment and fuel economy for a mere five cubic feet of space, why are you reading this?
 
VS: Kia Sportage
 
Resurgent Kia has introduced a pretty dandy small CUV with the Sportage. It’s more powerful than our Mazda (but really, what isn’t?), and the fact that you can get one with the 260-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder from the Optima means it’s far and away the most powerful car in its class. It also has a lower starting price for the base, four-cylinder version than our Mazda, with lowest MSRPs beginning at $18,500 compared to $20,695 for the CX-5.
 
So really, what’s the Mazda got going for it? Well, despite the Kia weighing less, it feels noticeably less agile than the CX-5. Its softer suspension and slower steering rack result in a ride that, while slightly more comfortable, is more isolated than the Mazda. This is one of those rare cases where we have two cars in the same segment, one with EPAS (CX-5) and the other with a standard hydraulic rack-and-pinion setup (Sportage), and we find the EPAS system to be the better communicator.
 
The Mazda is also more efficient and considerably roomier than the Kia. Front-wheel-drive models can net 22 in the city and 32 on the highway, while all-wheel drivers are stuck with 21 and 28. With 26 city and 35 highway for the base car and 25/31 on the all-wheel-driver CX-5, the Mazda is easily the fuel economy champ. It’s also quite a bit bigger than the diminutive Sportage. Passenger volume is only about 3.8 cubic feet bigger, but cargo volume in the Mazda dwarfs the Kia. CX-5 buyers will get 34.8 cubic feet with the second row up and 65.8 with the second row down, while Sportage buyers will only have 26.1 and 54.6 cubic feet with the seats and up and down.
 
2013 Mazda CX-5 Sport FWD 6MT
Engine: Inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 155 hp/150 lb-ft
Top Speed: 122 mph
Weight: 3208 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 26/35 mpg
Base Price: $20,695